In his recent State of the City speech, Mayor Mitch Landrieu noted the longstanding problems of the New Orleans Recreation Department. "When I was a kid," Landrieu said, "NORD had great playgrounds and sports teams and even theater, dance and music programs. But when I came into office 67 days ago, I found a recreation department that would make you weep, one that is underfunded and under-prioritized. We found many of NORD's facilities are in shambles — swimming pools without filtration systems, no restrooms and no shower facilities."
NORD's problems are even worse than that (see our cover story, "Where Do the Children Play?", June 13). They include bulldozed lots listed as playspots, rusted equipment, and abandoned and dangerous buildings left wide open. NORD is so dysfunctional, we had to get our list of playgrounds from FEMA rather than City Hall.
Even our blundering former mayor, Ray Nagin, recognized that NORD was an agency in crisis. The city formed a NORD Citizens Advisory Panel two years ago, chaired by businessmen Rod West and Roy Glapion and attorney Bobby Garon. After receiving public input for more than a year and looking at best practices in other cities, the panel presented the City Council with a 42-page report in August 2009. Among the group's recommendations: establishing a public-private partnership to run NORD; dedicating a millage to fund the program; and creating a 12-member commission to oversee it all. The first step is a charter referendum on Oct. 2 establishing the commission.
As a candidate for mayor, Landrieu promised to support the proposed public-private partnership for NORD (www.mitchformayor.com/agenda/nord). Unfortunately, he has since broken part of that promise by seeking to take over the proposed governing board. The Citizens Advisory Panel recommended a depoliticized NORD commission appointed mostly by local university presidents from nominees submitted by the mayor and the City Council. The New Orleans Saints and the Hornets each would name a commissioner as well.
Now, Landrieu wants a 13-member commission — with eight members appointed by the mayor, two by the City Council, and others from the Recovery School District, the Orleans School Board, and the City Planning Commission. The Saints, the Hornets and the university presidents would have no appointments. So much for a "partnership" with the private sector.
The mayor also has backed off the millage idea, promising instead to double NORD's annual budget from $5 million to $10 million. We understand the mayor's reluctance to ask for a millage increase right now, knowing that other city agencies have fiscal crises as well. We'll defer to him on that — for now — but we still support a dedicated millage for NORD in the long run.
On the issue of appointments to the proposed NORD commission, however, Landrieu is clearly wrong. The advisory panel worked hard to renew public confidence in NORD and to depoliticize the commission by ensuring that no mayor could stack it with cronies. Landrieu's plan is basically a gussied-up extension of the status quo.
Nyka Scott, a lawyer who served on Landrieu's NORD transition team, sums up the problem: "Right now we have a great mayor that nobody has any issues with, but what if we get another Ray Nagin?" Babs Johnson, a parks advocate who also sat on the committee, is even more blunt: "A lot of people I know aren't going to vote for something that's a continuation of the mayor's political patronage of NORD."
There is some good news: Landrieu's plan to take over the commission is not yet the law. The City Council will determine the commission's structure after voters approve the charter proposition in October. There's still time to do the right thing. "That discussion will be subject to community input over the coming months," says Council President Arnie Fielkow.
A fundamental goal of the public-private partnership is to wrest control of NORD from political insiders. Unfortunately, Landrieu's first instinct seems to be to seize control, a trait many strong leaders share but one that also reflects a reluctance to trust others. We urge Landrieu to change his mind and embrace a true public-private partnership for NORD.
NORD deserves better than the status quo. So do New Orleans' children. The advisory panel got it right, Mr. Mayor. Show your strength by trusting and respecting its work.